'Wake up, now': Music insiders say gender imbalance is at heart of industry after sexual harassment revelations

Newshub talked with music artists and industry leaders who say at many levels the playing field for women is "not even".
Newshub talked with music artists and industry leaders who say at many levels the playing field for women is "not even". Photo credit: Getty Images.

New Zealand's music industry insiders say the processes and behaviours fueling gender imbalance need to change at all levels after its "dark side" was laid bare this week.  

Following misconduct revelations surrounding manager Lorde's former manager Scott Maclachlan and Benee's manager Paul McKessar, professionals are speaking out about demoralising treatment they've been expected to withstand, highlighting a myriad of gender inequality issues. 

Condemnation of the unacceptable behaviour has seen a number of artists show their solidarity with whistleblowers who shared their experiences - indicating that through some speaking out, change is possible for many.   

Their move to speak publicly has since prompted singer Anna Coddington to pen an open letter to the music industry, backed and signed by a number of female artists including Anika Moa, Lorde and Hollie Smith. 

To continue the conversation, Newshub has spoken with music artists and industry leaders who believe that at many levels the playing field for women is "not even" when compared with their male counterparts.  

As outlined in a Stuff #metooNZ investigation, predatory motives, abuse of power and sexual harassment stands among behaviours that have seen some to be put at the mercy of others - but what foundations has that conduct been built on to see it exist in the first place?  

'Everyone needs to wake up now'

APRA's Director of NZ Member Services and career composer Victoria Kelly told Newshub it is absolutely the case that anyone who is not white and male has a very different experience in the music industry.  

As a young person first starting out, she recalls fiercely holding on to the belief that her gender was not – and should never be – relevant to her work.  

"I was taught by my mother to behave as if gender didn’t matter, and I’ve always tried as hard as I can to ensure that my career is about my music."   

Yet, she says, as a younger woman she experienced just about every kind of unwelcome behaviour you can imagine from men in the industry.  

"At the time, I was too young and insecure to understand what these things really meant. As a result, I ignored and minimised many inexcusable things that happened to me.

 "Everyone needs to wake up now. There are no more excuses. We need the whole organism – and the individuals within it – to commit to correction and evolution, and be made accountable for failure if we're to address discrimination or abuse in a positive and lasting way."  

Research released in December 2020 revealed more than 70.1 percent of women in the music industry reported experiencing bias, disadvantage or discrimination based on their gender – seven times the rate of men. 

The statistics, gathered through a survey of 600 New Zealand songwriter members of APRA AMCOS in 2019, also found 45.2 percent reported that their safety in places where music is made and/or performed was a barrier to their success - over twice the rate of men. 

Kelly believes that one reason womxn (spelling used to be inclusive of trans women and nonbinary people) continue to lose ground in their quest for equality in the music industry is that there is not yet mutually agreed accountability across its many facets.  

She believes the industry has lacked transparency, and she supports the creation of an industry-wide code of conduct that companies and individuals can agree to, enforce and abide by.  

"We've recently learned that Scott Maclachlan was able to continue working in New Zealand despite having been banned from Warner’s Australian offices for abusive behaviour towards women," she said.

"Scott has since acknowledged his behaviour, apologised, and lost his job. But who was responsible for the decision to continue enabling his behaviour in New Zealand, and when will they be made accountable?"

Victoria Kelly says not ensuring that womxn creators have the same basic rights as male ones means that legions of brilliant people are kept silent.
Victoria Kelly says not ensuring that womxn creators have the same basic rights as male ones means that legions of brilliant people are kept silent. Photo credit: Supplied.

Kelly says the imbalances entrenched in the industry have nothing to do with a lack of talent, ability or motivation among female and non-binary music creators.  

"Humanity is made up of more than one kind of person. Having an industry landscape where all creators have equal support and opportunity to communicate their work is crucial to all of humanity’s ability to hear and see themselves reflected in music. I can’t overstate how important that is."  

She is frustrated it is still the case that anyone who is not white and male has to work harder in the music industry, but doesn't believe the bias is always as intentional as some may think.   

"Most people in the music industry don't 'actively' or 'consciously' exclude anyone - but the fact that exclusion happens anyway means there is a lot of work to do on increasing that consciousness," Kelly said.

She unreservedly supports people in the music industry who are now stepping forward to share their experiences of discrimination and abuse. 

"We owe it to all of the people who are damaged by this behaviour to drive this conversation forward and act to prevent further harm."  

'I wouldn't even know where to start' 

Lani Purkis has worked as a stage manager, tour manager, promoter and guitar tech - but mostly, she has been a musician, playing in bands since 1992, notably as the bassist, and only woman, in Elemeno P. 

Two years ago, Purkis launched female-oriented festival Milk & Honey alongside Teresa Patterson and Julia Deans - a gig dedicated to making sure women are visible in every aspect of the music industry, from stage build to promotion. 

The hope is to show bookers and promoters that female artists do sell tickets, while programming to be representative across genre, rainbow and ethnicity. 

During Purkis' time in Elemeno P, she had two children and took her eldest on tour around the world when he was five-months-old.

She said she's seen women not being treated as equals "every single day". 

"I wouldn't even know where to start with these stories," Purkis told Newshub. 

"I would like to say that in my experience it is mostly people on the peripheral - security, crowds, media, publicans and guitar stores. Security has been the worst for me, for sure. Also, other women." 

Lani Purkis has achieved inspiring work as a member of Elemeno P, co-creator of Milk & Honey and role model for aspiring artists.
Lani Purkis has achieved inspiring work as a member of Elemeno P, co-creator of Milk & Honey and role model for aspiring artists. Photo credit: Supplied.

She's played seven Big Day Outs, five Homegrowns and countless other festivals - 90 percent of the time she says she was the only woman on tour or stage that day. 

"I played at the Powerstation a few years back and I shed a tear because after 25 years of playing on stages, it was the first time I looked up and saw a woman mixing front of house. I had to stop and point it out." 

She believes the industry is more accepting and supportive of male artists "100 percent" which isn't helped by the disproportionate representation.

"Unless there are women at the top supporting the up and coming artists, producers, promoters and techs then the power will always visually seem male heavy," she says.

"We have lots of women getting to the top positions now, but we need more. We need more women programming the radio stations, booking shows, playing drums and tuning guitars."

'Constantly sexualised' 

Auckland DJ Zeisha Fremaux says she's not surprised by the stories that are being shared publicly. 

"It’s been a long time coming. Womxn are still afraid to speak on what they know though. We are constantly sexualised, and when the choice on how present ourselves is taken away from us, it's a problem." 

She told Newshub she has experienced lewd behaviour firsthand by a producer she used to work with, and by an ex-manager at the beginning of her career. 

"When I was 18 my ex-manager constantly made to go to events that were a waste of time saying I needed to meet 'X' person to be seen, he would peer pressure me to drink when I didn’t want to, he would walk me to my car and try to hug me for extended periods of time when I would insist on him not walking me to my car," she explained. 

"We are made to be their counsel when they are having problems with their partners and guilt-tripped into listening to their stories."

Zeisha Fremaux says she learned early on that she had to be careful of who to trust.
Zeisha Fremaux says she learned early on that she had to be careful of who to trust. Photo credit: Supplied.

She says the responsibility needs to be placed on how offending men control their behaviour, and women's stories about examples where they felt uncomfortable should be taken seriously. 

"We shouldn’t have to sit here and tell men how to treat womxn fairly. We are not their rehab nor are we their counsel." 

'I can be a greater champion for change'

Ash Wallace of Auckland pop duo Foley is among the women in music vocalising changes needed to ensure equal treatment of all sexes "from the get-go", saying she often feels there are discrepancies. 

Newshub interviewed Wallace and bandmate Gabriel Everett in July last year while researching a lack of female representation on festival line-ups. 

As a half-male, half-female act, Wallace said at the time that the contrast in her and Everett's experiences were stark. 

"I have had to fight incredibly hard to be respected in my own right as a songwriter, instrumentalist, and producer, alongside the assumption that Gabe is all of those things and I am just a vocalist," she said. . 

"Those stereotypes are incredibly harmful and have made me question whether or not it’s worth the fight countless times." 

Her musical partner agreed, saying male artists aren't expected to prove in the first instance they have talent. 

"If you have to fight to even be recognised, while male artists are given an almost automatic trust of talent and skill, how is that an equal pathway?" Everett says. 

Musicians Ash Wallace and Gabriel Everett revealed their experiences and treatment within the music industry have been different at times.
Musicians Ash Wallace and Gabriel Everett revealed their experiences and treatment within the music industry have been different at times. Photo credit: Supplied.

"It’s hard to know if we’re working harder because we inherently have privilege being half-male and Pākeha, but we definitely have to work to break through assumptions and define ourselves the way we want to." 

Wallace says it's easy to underestimate the impact of not seeing yourself reflected, but the impacts can be huge. 

"If young women and gender diverse individuals don’t see themselves on stage, they can’t aspire to follow in anyone’s footsteps, and it sends the message that non-males are lesser-than." 

She says while growing up, female acts like Brooke Fraser and Bic Runga were critical to her feeling she actually had a shot at pursuing her dreams. 

"Without them paving the way, I never would have seen it as possible. As much as I also loved and respected male acts in New Zealand, their impact wasn’t as pivotal for me personally."

Wallace said male domination in key areas like music production, gatekeeper positions like label A&Rs and festival promotion drives dispositioning and inequality. 

Together, the pair feel lucky to have gained support from local commercial radio, connecting with people who have helped them to secure gigs of their own, support slots, appearances at summer shows and a popular catalogue of releases.

But even with the support they have benefited from, the pair aren't shying away from speaking on the injustices they have felt and seen. 

"There is a deeply-rooted perception for some individuals and companies in the industry that women and wxmen don’t have the same value as men, and in particular when it comes to booking festivals the bias becomes clear." 

In light of the recent revelations, Wallace told Newshub the courage shown by those who came forward to share their stories this week has been astounding. 

Too often women and LGBTQI+ people in the industry work with a constant fear of their career, she explained, and their lifelong dreams being under threat by those more powerful than them. 

"Going forward, it's a very personal and poignant reminder that I can be a greater champion for change, a greater support for my fellow creatives, and a better bystander when misconduct occurs." 

She highlighted that the conversations that have taken place are a step in the right direction, and have created an opportunity for men to learn how they can be allies. 

"If we can have those conversations both in a personal context, and publicly through platforms like this, we can try to do justice to the bravery of those who came forward." 

'Collectively we are the answer' 

Hints at the industry's current standing have been declared at times prior to this - notably highlighted by bilingual Māori singer Ria Hall in October 2019, who used her time on the microphone while presenting at the APRA Silver Scroll Awards to challenge the music industry's top aficionados sitting in the same room to be bold and to be brave. 

"Gender imbalance across sectors in industries is something that is glaringly obvious," she said. "We hui about trying to rectify these situations yet the status quo remains, time after time. For our industry, the disparities throughout are increasingly alarming and frustrating, to say the least." 

Hall pointed to not only the lack of female artists on major New Zealand festivals line ups, but an ongoing absence of female promoters, DJs, producers, technicians and stagehands across the board, signaling a distinct lack of diversity with little effort being activated to provoke change from within. 

She asked the industry if they could remember the last time they executed bravery or stood boldly, encouraging the collective to take responsibility to diversify by creating "a thriving, sustainable, mana-enhancing music industry ecosystem". 

"I'm asking this as this is what I believe is required, now, more than ever. To be brave. To be bold. Kia maia." 

Ria Hall's encouragement 15 months ago still seems apt: "If there was ever a time to fix and fill these gaping chasms in our beloved industry, it's now. Collectively we are the answer."